For that reason alone Casino Royale probably will be tough to overthrow for me as one of my favourite Bonds of all time. It's somewhat sad that the follow-up to Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace was far from a great Bond for me in being overly dull, angry and dreary. So with that in mind, how does Skyfall fare?
For me, Skyfall may well be the first auteurist Bond out there, probably the first Bond in a long time where I've seen the director imprint his personal stamp on his film as sharply as he did. It is first a good Sam Mendes film, and then a mixed-to-great Bond movie.
Mendes is such a huge part of how the film operates and his stamp can be seen from all over it in the form of Mendes' constant theme and preoccupation: family life.
As a man whose background is little known and rarely touched upon, Bond's informal family is pretty much the crew at MI6 who are always at his back. It is in this movie, whose goal is to complete the transformation of Craig's character into Bond that began in Casino Royale that MI6's Matriarch M (Judi Dench) has to de facto betray Bond. In a spur of the moment decision between life and death, she orders Agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to open fire at Bond and an enemy operative who has just stolen a hard drive containing all the names of moles embedded in terrorist organisations. The shot misses the enemy and leads to Bond's fall into the water below.
After a mysterious recuperation and a moment 'enjoying death' by playing games with scorpions and liquor on some unnamed resort island, Bond returns to England when MI6 headquarters are bombed by a powerful and highly intelligent cyberterrorist, who turns out to be Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva, real name Chiago Rodriguez, is a former MI6 agent whose shenanigans in the field ended him in the hands of the Chinese authorities on the eve of Hong Kong's handover, and who has since sworn revenge on those who abandoned him especially M, who he refers to as 'Momma'. Silva, a flamboyant bisexual who dresses like a disco-era fashion dud, is also a supremely brilliant and cunning mastermind who does have a lot of fun being evil as he is, and formerly one of M's favourite agents in the field. He's like an evil, jealous, slightly incestuous elder brother whose rivalry with Bond is basically a tug of war for Mama's affections.
If Silva's his jealous older brother, the youngest Q (Ben Whishaw) yet comes across as his geeky but smarter younger brother in place of the old geezer forever telling Bond to 'Grow up'. Q's technical genius but physically unimposing exterior form the ideal contrast to Bond (who has intellectual, sexual and physical smarts) and Silva (who has all technical, intellectual, physical and sexual smarts). We know though Q will be old before Bond, the eternally young action hero of the screen, ever will be, and from there comes the poignancy; that old geezer telling Bond to grow up will be here before you know it.
It's no surprise therefore that the film even transforms its lack of really substantial Bond girls/women into a strength. Besides the serviceable Naomie Harris (riffing on her similar role in Ninja Assassin it seems) the slinky Berenice Marlohe appears in an extended cameo doing the most unconvincing Macaunese accent ever. The true Bond woman of this film is M. It is the first Bond film I have seen that tries to get under her skin more than just being Bond's minder, but also as a woman for whom Bond has genuine love and affection for. By extension, M is herself being put in a crisis that comes with her age, as well as that of Britain's as a fading world power, as she recites from Tennyson's Ulysses which was a favourite poem of her late husband, what comes across is not just her fortitude but also her loneliness at the top in making tough decisions that can mean life and death for her charges, for a moment she becomes Britannia herself.
So this is a movie about James Bond as a Mama's Boy; son of M, and of Britannia.
The idea of a Bond movie that delves into his family is so utterly successful in its execution throughout, and the idea of Bond not just as a lone cipher but a member of a greater family with all that entails works so well, it is for these reasons precisely that as far as the Craig Bonds go, the movie actually stops short of being the rousing, balanced crowd-pleaser that Casino Royale was despite an almost hurried coda to get transforming Craig's Bond into the Bond we know and love and doing the gunbarrel walk, the transformation never comes quite as convincing because of everything that has transpired before it. The part of Bond as an actor in his own family saga, and getting into the web of relationships that make up Bond's surrogate family is so well-thought out and executed that it diminishes the film's attempt to balance it with being a Bond movie proper.
Still, for those of you who'd really like to see a major filmmaker finally make Bond his own for a franchise that has mostly attracted journeymen directors, Skyfall is the film for you.